Chicken-fried steak and a tub of ice cream—Appellate Judge Tom Becker's committing a gastronomical sin.
Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.
In the 1960s, director Frank Perry and his wife, writer Eleanor Perry, were among the leading lights of indie cinema, with critically acclaimed films like David and Lisa, Ladybug, Ladybug, and Last Summer to their credit.
The two split personally and professionally in the early '70s, and Frank—bolstered by the success of their final collaboration, Diary of a Mad Housewife—went on to slightly bigger, if not better, things. The polarizing Play It as It Lays, the underwhelming Man on a Swing, and the generally panned Rancho Deluxe did little to burnish his reputation, though some TV successes kept him going.
In the '80s, Perry found himself working with bigger budgets and bigger stars, but by now it was clear that "bigger" was definitely not translating as "better." In fact, while none of his '80s films was particularly successful, two are remembered as among the worst of the decade, if not all time.
First up was the über-campy Mommie Dearest, a film Perry made with serious intentions; the director was dismayed when the studio, seeing it for what it was after it opened, began playing up the camp value in the advertising campaign.
Perry's second film of the decade was Monsignor. While it doesn't contain the near-pornographic level of high camp lunacy, pound for pound, Monsignor is every bit as bad as Perry's excursion into the clean but crazy world of Joan Crawford.
Facts of the Case
Young Catholic priest John Flaherty (Christopher Reeve, Superman) is called into service as a front-line chaplain during World War II. In the midst of an attack by Axis forces, Father Flaherty does a very un-priestly thing: he grabs a machine gun and mows down some aggressive approaching troops. Killing enemy combatants makes him a sinner—and, maybe, a war criminal.
No matter the taint, he is summoned to the Vatican. It seems that the Church higher-ups have had their eye on him and think his combination of charm and "balls" makes him a good candidate to work inside the Church administration. He's soon doing the books under the watchful eye of the Pope's second-in-command, Cardinal Santoni (Fernando Rey, The French Connection).
When Flaherty learns that the Church is suffering a serious cash-flow problem, he proposes a simple yet controversial solution: go into the black market business with the Mafia. Conveniently, Flaherty has a childhood friend who grew up to be a corrupt soldier and is running such a business just down the road. After a bumpy meet cute with the local Don (Jason Miller, The Exorcist), Flaherty's in like Flynn, and soon the Church coffers are flowing with ill-got cash.
Unfortunately, the deeper Flaherty goes on his mission of divine corruption, the more personally corrupt he becomes.
Monsignor isn't just a bad movie, it's rotten; a sensationalized and soulless endeavor that fails as a character study, as an allegory, and as entertainment. A turgid exercise in Churchsploitation, it's barely salacious enough to qualify as a true "guilty pleasure," despite its pretext of a priest running through a litany of venial, cardinal, and mortal sins. Sure, it's guilty enough, but watching this was about as pleasurable as passing a kidney stone.
The film offers up a series of episodes chronicling Flaherty's crooked rise to the top. Most of his machinations are pretty simplistic, and far less interesting and inflammatory than what would be served up in The Godfather Part III a few years later. Perry seems to have not cared so much about things like intrigue or exploration, reasoning—apparently—that having a priest do "bad things" would be enough to carry the day.
Reeve's generally clueless performance doesn't help matters one bit. He should be the Bad Lieutenant in a collar, corrupt, conflicted, and a bit crazy, but instead, he's like a well-coiffed and buff Rasputin robot, an empty but penetrating stare standing in for "inner life." Reeve's "otherworldly" look is supposed to faux pious, but it just comes off as faux. "Conflicted" is easier to peg; you know when Reeve is trying to show some angst on Flaherty's part because the actor actually changes his expression, throwing in a furled brow or gnashed grimace.
The wooden, dimensionless portrayal isn't entirely Reeve's fault. The script, by one-time blacklistee Abraham Polonsky (Body and Soul) doesn't give the actor much to work with. There's no feel for faith here, no subtext, no concern as to why Flaherty took the vows in the first place. They might as well have made it about a crooked garage attendant and called it Mechanic.
Clergy people doing underhanded but well-intended things has been a movie staple for decades—remember the nuns in The Sound of Music pulling the spark plugs from the Nazis' cars, or The Bells of St. Mary's, where a priest and a nun con an old rich guy out of a building? If all Flaherty did was a little backroom dealing to get the Church in the black, there wouldn't be much of a sensational hook to Monsignor. So to sell this puppy, it's necessary to give Flaherty something really blasphemous to chew on. Now, he's killed, he's lied, he's thrown in with thieves, what sin have we missed? Why yes, it's lust! And who better than to lust after than a hot nun?
Flaherty hooks up with Clara (Genevieve Bujold, Anne of the Thousand Days) while he's out black marketeering dressed like a soldier. She's dour but sexy; he's…well, he's Christopher Reeve. After inviting the postulate—she hasn't quite made it to full-fledged nun—to a bordello-like bedroom conveniently plunked in the middle of the Black Market warehouse and pouring her some champagne, he gives the brow furl while she undresses and explains that she's not quite on board with the whole nun thing.
Flaherty and Clara aren't a fun ecclesiastical couple, like Vanessa Redgrave and Oliver Reed in The Devils; no sacrilegious orgies or erotic stake burnings for these fornicators. He spends most of his time furled while she tries to figure out the "terrible secret" she suspects he's hiding. Her worst fears are realized in the worst possible way: they both show up for an elaborate papal blessing, and when she sees her lover, beroped and behatted with the other priests, she stands stock still and slackjawed while the other nuns bump into her like characters from a '90s era NES game running into a wall as the Pope sits looking befuddled, wondering why Blessing Day has been cut short. Later, she confronts Flaherty in a chapel, so furled he can barely look at her, and she goes all Lady MacBeth on him. "What were you praying for?" she shrieks. "A miracle?" he answers, meekly, giving Clara the opportunity for a once-in-a-lifetime comeback: "You think God was going to waste a miracle on US???"
It should be noted that while Bujold was certainly beautiful, she was also nearing 40 at the time, make her an odd choice to portray a postulate who's supposed to be around 20. I guess it does help support the idea that Clara's a tad "world weary" and has no problem hopping into bed with Flaherty; she also gives us a bit of nudity to justify the R rating.
Does Flaherty get punished for his sins? Well, let's just say that by the end, you could be calling him Father J.R. Ewing, and he's got friends in some very high places.
The sets, costumes, and Ennio Morricone's score are pretty good, all infusing the film, rightly or wrongly, with a decidedly old-Hollywood feel. It's also a product-placement wet dream since the black market scenes all have boxes with words like HERSHEY and LUCKY STRIKE in big, block lettering, inspiring patrons bored with the antics onscreen to hit the concession stand, a boon to theaters that showed this box office flop.
Shout! Factory offers up a decent-enough transfer and a clear Mono audio track. There are no supplements.
Monsignor is a dreadful film, but if bad is your thing, then like me, you will have a blast with it.
Schlock in a cassock.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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